Imagine being able to use gestures to remotely pilot your own real-life robot and see what it sees. Now you can, thanks to the Wii and Kinect video-gaming systems. Or at least, thanks to the ingenious hacked system cooked up by one enterprising robotics engineer.
In an amazing video posted on YouTube demonstrating his promising hack, roboticist Taylor Veltrop of French company Aldebaran Robotics shows off how he managed to turn one of his company’s signature consumer products, the two-foot tall NAO robot, into a remote-controlled cat-grooming machine.
“I’ve released the “finished” version of my Robot Avatar project,” Veltrop wrote in a post on his website on Wednesday, “I use a treadmill, Wiimotes, Kinect, HMD, NAO, and ROS to experience the reality of the robot and control it. I use the interface to remotely brush my cat Lotus. My wife Asami helped keep him calm and in place.”
In the video, Veltrop explains how his system, what he calls a “virtual reality control system for robots,” allows him to use a home-built Head Mounted Display (HMD) to see through the NAO robot’s camera and control its movements using the common motion-controllers found in the Nintendo Wii system and a treadmill. The robot responds to his gestures thanks to the life-sized motion-capture camera that controls Microsoft’s Kinect for XBox.
As the video shows, Veltrop is able to get the robot to approach his cat Lotus, who is sitting in Veltrop’s wife’s lap. Though puss seems to want to leave at one point, for the most part he waits patiently while the robot shuffles toward him, takes a brush from the assistant’s hand, and proceeds to give him a few gentle strokes.
After some initial trouble locating the cat and getting in position the robot does a pretty good job, even though according to Veltrop, the action captured on the video is only its second try.
As Veltrop explained:
“This was the second try accomplishing brushing the cat. On the first try we discovered that the positioning of the brush in NAO’s hand needed to be flipped 180 degrees from the intuitive direction.”
When Bruno Maisonnier founded the Paris-based company Aldebaran Robotics in 2005, he envisioned a pint-sized personal robot that would “contribute to humankind’s well-being.”
Little did he imagine that the company’s signature product, a friendly looking toy like robot called NAO, would also contribute to the well-being of cats.
Cat grooming might seem like an odd choice for a yearlong project but it dovetails with Maisonnier’s concept of an autonomous, affordable, robot that could serve as a personal assistant, particularly for tasks that would enable older persons to maintain an independent lifestyle. The company encourages independent researchers, even those without a programming background, to tinker with the NAO.
In December 2011, Aldebaran Robotics launched a new, more interactive version of the robot, NAO Next Gen, with the aim of partnering with organizations serving autistic children. Among other improvements, Next Gen has an advanced voice recognition program and an on-board computer that “sees” with the help of two video streams.
Indeed, Veltrop said that his next step is to add “hearing and speaking through the robot,” using the NAO’s microphones and speakers and his own homebrewed Head Mounted Display (HMD).
Aside from domestic applications, a video game-robot interface could have many practical applications in firefighting, hazmat response, bomb squad operations and other emergencies.
For that matter, a remote-controlled robot could have many practical military applications, from base operations to field work including search-and-rescue, reconnaissance and mine detection, on up to killing the enemy.
The U.S. military’s increased use of airborne drones hints in that direction. The Department of Defense has also been investigating humanoid robots and four-legged walking robots developed by the company Boston Dynamics, nicknamed, coincidentally, BigDog and LittleDog, which are capable of traversing rough terrain. A smaller version, RHex, can navigate marshy conditions and swim underwater.
No word yet on how any of these devices would fare against Ewoks, though presumably the NAO would be armed with a hairbrush.